In Madagascar, an unlikely democracy

Marc Ravalomanana will be sworn in today, but governors of five provinces threaten to secede.

Marc Ravalomanana, a peasant-cum-yogurt tycoon with a people's touch and a penchant for designer suits, is to be inaugurated as president of Madagascar today in the capital. Across the island, however, in the port city of Toamasina, trouble is brewing.

Lt. Cmdr. Didier Ratsiraka, the country's president for the past 23 years, has rejected the election results and is busily holding emergency meetings with his advisers and ministers on the AstroTurf around the swimming pool at the Le Neptune hotel – and plotting his return.

Welcome to the Indian Ocean Island of Madagascar – a tropical paradise featuring golden beaches, crystalline waters, and an escalating political showdown. This African nation is either on the verge of imploding into civil war or merely in the throes of a difficult birth to real democracy, say analysts.

Currently, there are two presidents-elect, two sets of ministers, two chiefs of staff, two central-bank directors, and one increasingly frustrated public.

Despite the hardship and uncertainly, however, observers describe events here as positive growing pains of a slowly maturing democracy. They say that if, as expected, a deal is eventually brokered, peace is regained, and Mr. Ravalomanana takes control, Madagascar will be all the better for its trials. They argue that Ravalomanana has created nothing short of a revolution.

"This is the first time people are thinking politically," says Pierre Rangera, an economist and retired diplomat. "Before, we just accepted whatever the government said. Now we know how to mount a challenge."

An example for Africa

Prior to the recent election campaign, says Mr. Rangera, there was no source of independent political information on the island. But Ravalomanana, with his private radio, TV stations, and website – plus helicopter trips to rural areas – changed this. "Modern technology and a determined, rich candidate, have finally made the public conscious of their rights and given the old regime a real challenge," Mr. Rangera says. "If we manage to carry this off, we will be an example to all of Africa that people can take power."

Foreign diplomats are dashing around trying to figure out with who they are meant to do business, madly cabling their home offices with confused political updates, setting up carpool groups to save petrol, and evacuating nonessential staff and dependents for fear of future violence.

But they, too, see the events as positive. "In theory this has been a democracy since independence from France 42 years ago, but the spirit of it had not caught on yet," said one senior Western diplomat. "Now, it seems, there is movement on that front."

The crisis began after the December 16 elections, in which official results gave neither candidate the absolute majority needed to win. Ravalomanana claimed the counting was rigged by a court appointed by and loyal to Mr. Ratsiraka, and refused to accept the verdict. Riding on a wave of popular support, he declared himself president in February and seized the government ministries.

In late April, after months of a power vacuum and rising tensions, the two leaders met in Senegal, under the auspices of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), and agreed to a recount.

However, when the newly appointed judges of the court ruled last Monday that Ravalomanana had indeed won an absolute majority and should officially be declared leader, it was Ratsiraka's turn to reject the ruling, claiming the new judges were biased.

In expectation of today's inauguration, five out of six provincial governors have threatened to break away from the capital province and form their own independent, confederated state headed by Ratsiraka.

The island's 16 million citizens seem to have no interest in fighting their brothers, or splitting their already impoverished island in two. Ravalomanana's growing pool of supporters, far from buckling under the stress of the situation, seem more determined than ever to see their candidate take office – but through peaceful means.

"Civil war is possible, because you have politicians arguing and men behind them with financial interests and guns," says Hanityayivo Rasoanaivio, a well-known Malagasies singer. "But we don't want to fight, and we won't take up arms against one another. We will wait it out until we get what we deserve – Ravalomanana."

A local rags-to-riches success story, Ravalomanana's appeal rests partly on Ratsiraka's unpopularity – but not solely. As mayor of the capital Antananarivo, Ravalomanana splashed fresh paint on the houses, bettered the roads, and generally made residents feel prouder of their hometown.

Under Ratsiraka, the economy had taken a nosedive, education levels had declined, and the government had come to be seen as corrupt and disinterested.

Ravalomanana, in contrast, is seen to care about the people. He addresses their concerns directly – talking of cows and schools and fresh milk – and he does this, not in the official French, which he (and most peasants) speak poorly, but in the local Malagasy.

"We have to define what democracy is, and implement it," says Ravalomanana, in an interview with the Monitor at his Antananarivo mansion. One of the very few African leaders to run for office after amassing a fortune, Ravalomanana stresses that he is not in it for the money. "My family and I have enough. I am doing this for the people," he says, glancing over at the marble swimming pool. "People want change. In fact they want democracy – but they could not express it before. They did not know they had the power."

Ratsiraka sees it differently. "This is a coup d'état," says the president, who came in on the wings of one himself. "[Ravalomanana] is the mayor and not the president. He is behaving illegally, and the people will not stand for it."

The people of Toamasina, in private conversation, don't seem to agree. "Actually we are tired of Ratsiraka," says Lea Ranaivor-isina. "He will not be able to hold us hostage forever. He will run out of money, and will not be able to buy any more supporters."

Whether or not Ravalomanana, as president, will be more democratic-minded than his predecessor is unclear. Some of his newly appointed ministers, for example, are former Ratsiraka cronies.

Moreover, argues social scientist Serge Zafinahova, the problem is not so much with the leadership of the country, the problem is the country's institutions. "Ravalomanana is all about rapid development, liberty, and democracy – but that's not much of a program," he says. "On an institutional level there is nothing new. The courts and the Parliament remain under the president's direct rule. Nothing spectacular is ahead."

Political maturing

Others pundits say that the political maturing taking place these past few months is irreversible. Any future leader will have to be accountable to to the people. Almost double the number of voters went to the ballot boxes this year – and since the elections, dozens of small civil society organizations have sprouted up.

"The population has been politicized by these elections," says the British ambassador to Madagascar, Charles Mochan. "These elections have changed the way in which Malagasies understand what government is – and what their contribution to politics can be."

"We have learned something from these elections," says Rangera. "Ravalomanana has unleashed a new movement for democracy – even if he does not stand for it. We are stronger now."

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